What I’m reading: May 2022

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for Russian Doll (both seasons), Black Sails, and for some reason Muppet Treasure Island. 

What I’m reading for work

So as part of my efforts to further shore up the article I’m currently working on related to creative writing pedagogy (or, you know, procrastinate on actually finishing it even longer), I decided to read even more books about writing on top of those I looked at for my original study. That’s because the 31 books that were included in my original study were all about fiction writing and I thought it would be helpful to at least look at a few books related to other genres since this new article is about creative writing education more generally. At this point, I have now read five (out of a planned five) books about poetry, three (out of a planned five) books on creative nonfiction, and none (out of a planned five) of the books on my list where the genre of focus is more ambiguous. (If you’re a nerdy librarian like me, the subject headings on these are more likely to be something vague like “Authorship” rather than to name an actual genre of writing.) To say that I’m kind of burned out on reading books about writing at this point would be an understatement but I still think it’s important to capture, even in this small slightly more haphazard way, how books about genres other than fiction writing talk about research. Which is to say, none of the books on poetry really did but all of the books on creative nonfiction have, at least a little. This seems to support my suspicion that research is often conflated with nonfiction writing even though it’s just as important for many kinds of fiction writing, something I’d like to look into more one of these days. Anyway, I probably won’t write about the individual books the way I’ve done in the past but I feel like I’ve read enough books about writing at this point that I’ll be doing a special post in the near future naming the ones that I personally liked the best or found most valuable. So if you’re interested in this topic, keep an eye out for that.

What I’m listening to/playing/doing for fun

Fender Play: As a teenager, I used to take weekly guitar lessons from my aunt. In the space of a couple of years, I learned some good basics and how to play about half of “Blackbird” by the Beatles. (I was not a super talented or committed student.) Then I went off to college and my guitar got stolen when my parents’ house was robbed one day. I never replaced it and never really planned to. Then I walked into a local music store back in February as part of a creative research activity and was surprised to find myself actually trying out a few guitars while I was there. Not only that, but I still remembered how to play about a quarter of “Blackbird.” So, yeah. I let myself get talked into buying one (a Luna acoustic, if you’re interested) but this time I was determined to be more diligent in my learning. I quickly discovered a couple of great free channels on YouTube. And because I was watching those, I was inevitably bombarded with ads for Fender Play, a paid platform. Even though I probably could have learned everything I wanted from YouTube, I ended up subscribing as a way to build up my knowledge about technique. So far, I have not regretted it. Which is to say, the Level 1 course on guitar playing starts out super, super basic. Like “these are the strings and when you strum them, the guitar makes a sound” kind of basic. Luckily, the platform gives you the flexibility to skip ahead if you want to. It still took me a few weeks (of very irregular practice) to get to the lessons on one finger C and G chords and by then I’d already learned a few slightly more challenging (but still beginner level) chords from YouTube. But I still appreciated how what I was learning helped me better understand basic technique and the format for the learning experience is very well done. For most lessons, you see a video where an instructor describes and demonstrates what you’re about to learn and invites you to play along. Then the next step is a “Practice mode” where you, as the name suggests, practice on your own along with a track that lets you hear how what you’re playing is supposed to sound. There’s also a “Feedback mode,” which I haven’t tried yet. It’s super simple and easy to follow and, as I said, very well done. I also discovered some of the platform’s more exciting content by watching Fender’s weekly live show on YouTube, which is lively discussion of some featured technique or genre where the hosts answer users’ questions. Links to each technique discussed are always included as part of the show, which is how I discovered a lesson on hybrid picking that made me feel very cool. Playing guitar again has been surprisingly enjoyable and I feel like Fender Play is giving me a lot of the tools I need to feel like I’m making progress as a player. Definitely recommended for casual players like me.

What I’m watching for fun

Russian Doll Season 2 on Netflix: The first season of Russian Doll pulled off a neat trick. When it first introduced Alan about halfway through, I kind of hated him. I’d become so involved in Nadia’s story that I resented having to shift my focus to him and his more bitter-seeming character.(1) But by the time the season ended, a mere four episodes later, I was convinced something bad was going to happen to him and I was ready to riot if it did because I loved him so much. As far as I’m concerned, this is basically a magic trick and I’ve rewatched the series several times to try to figure out how they do it. I still haven’t worked it out. Whatever the answer, Russian Doll has been one of my favorite series of the last few years. So it’s probably a little weird that I wasn’t thrilled when I heard it was getting a second season and that that season would be a continuation of the first, rather than some kind of anthology installment. The first season was just so perfect on its own that a continuation didn’t seem necessary to me. Still, the second season was coming whether I wanted it to or not and I knew I was going to watch it. I wanted to love it. Unfortunately, it never pulls off the same trick the first one did. Which is to say, I still love Nadia and I’m glad they found a way to bring Alan back, even if it’s only for what amounts to a glorified cameo(2). I was hoping, though, that after a few episodes I would warm up to the time travel plot introduced early on, the way I warmed up to Alan the first time around. I never really did, possibly because the time travel device also came with a sort-of body swap conceit that frankly didn’t work for me. I felt like the season almost saved itself in the last episode or two but everything that happens in those episodes feels so rushed and then it just kind of…ends. Personally, I feel like whatever money that went toward filming a couple of episodes in Budapest would have been better spent on filling the season out with another episode or two so that the themes that are being explored could be better tied together. It’s not that I disliked this new season. It just didn’t click for me the same way the first one did and I doubt I’ll rewatch it except maybe to refresh my memory about what happened if there’s ever a third go-around.
Black Sails on Hulu: So after watching Our Flag Means Death, I might have gotten into a little bit of a pirate thing and I decided to check out Black Sails, which is a show that I’ve been curious about for a while but was never motivated to actually spend time on mostly because I found the premise a bit confusing. If you’re not familiar: Black Sails is a sort of adult-oriented prequel to Treasure Island which follows characters like Billy Bones and Long John Silver when they were young pirates. So far so good, though making such an adult story out of a children’s book is a bit of a weird choice. But alongside these very fictional pirates, the show also features some (highly fictionalized versions of) actual historical pirates like Charles Vane, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard). Being more familiar with other versions of these characters I had seen elsewhere ended up being a completely unintended source of amusement while watching the show. For example, imagining the actors who play Billy Bones and John Silver here (Tom Hopper and Luke Arnold, respectively) eventually aging into the actors who play the same characters in Muppet Treasure Island (Billy Connolly and Tim Curry, respectively) was weirdly hilarious. And when Blackbeard is first introduced wearing what looks like a bunch of guns, well. If you’ve seen Our Flag Means Death, you know why that’s funny.  All of this to say: I had a bit of an adjustment period when I first watched the show, especially given the shift from the more queer-friendly gaze of OFMD to the aggressively straight male one of the show’s first season.(3) But even though this straight male gaze never fully disappears, it does eventually become less aggressive and somewhere in the second season the show settles into something a little more interesting and worthwhile. It took some time, but around the time John Silver loses his leg(4), I realized that I had started to care about the characters and what happened to them. Knowing the plot of Treasure Island (mostly via the Muppet version, though I have read the book) and knowing where some of the key characters that story shares with this one end up also made it interesting to see how the story developed with that eventual end in mind. Also, credit where it’s due: for a violent show involving eighteenth century piracy, the series is surprisingly economical when it comes to character deaths, at least in the seasons that I’ve seen so far (the first three). So when major deaths do happen, they are genuinely surprising and/or impactful. Of course, the show can’t exactly go full Game of Thrones because some of these characters have to survive at least long enough to one day meet Jim Hawkins. But still. I’ve been liking this a lot more than I thought I would when I first started watching it.
  1. It doesn’t help that when Alan is first introduced, it’s implied that he has a history of using his mental health issues to manipulate his longtime girlfriend, i.e. threatening to hurt himself if she breaks up with him. I’ve had too much real-life experience with that sort of thing to enjoy its portrayal in a fictional character.
  2. Okay, it’s not really a cameo. He’s given second billing on most of the episodes and has a decent amount of screentime. But his story goes nowhere. The interaction he has with the ghost(?) of his grandmother at the end, which is intended to explain much of his recent journey, made me a little mad that we didn’t get to see more of that journey. There’s some really interesting stuff there!
  3. To be fair, this show does have some queer elements but the same sex relationships between the female-identifying characters are clearly shot with a straight male audience in mind and the reveal about Captain Flint in season two was done with so much plausible deniability that if you happen to miss the last 10-15 minutes of the one episode where Flint and Hamilton actually kiss, you could be excused for not knowing that their relationship was anything other than a particularly close friendship. That said, the whole “Know No Shame” thing was very well done. This show is less than 10 years old but I feel like it if came out now, they’d be able to do a lot more with this aspect of the story. It seems like they wanted to but they also didn’t want to scare off the intended (straight male) audience by making it too much of a Thing.
  4. Not a spoiler, at least not if you know Long John Silver as the one-legged pirate from Treasure Island. But actually I did forget that he only had one leg in the book so I was kind of surprised when this happened on the show. Then felt dumb for being surprised because I did, after all, watch Muppet Treasure Island approximately a million times when I was a kid and having only one leg is kind of one of the character’s defining characteristics.

One thought on “What I’m reading: May 2022

  1. Muppet Treasure Island is great! (as with any muppet movie). We have been watching a lot of Ghosts, both the original British and now-copied American version. Basically a woman is able to see ghosts in a historic manor she inherited, including an ancestor, and her husband can’t, but she is having regular conversations with them, letting them watch TV, etc. It’s pretty funny. And we discovered the producers/actors of the British Ghosts also created Horrible Histories (also on Brit TV and probably YouTube). It’s hilarious sketch comedy and fun historical facts about all periods of history. Every history teacher should consider showing to their students. It would be a fun way to learn some of the various ages and cultures (Pirates, Romans, Trojans, Tudors, Victorians, Georgians, Vikings, etc. along the vain of Monty Python)

    Liked by 1 person

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